Be A Trail Guide: Adults are Self-Directed and Independent Learners

In addition to some basic principles of adult learners, there are also some important assumptions about adults that will help improve your ability to design effective instruction.

The first assumption of Malcolm Knowles’ andragogy deals with self-concept.

Knowles’ First Assumption

Like most other things in life, adults are independent and self-directed in their learning.

Women smiling and working at a table

Instructor and student meeting, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016

Knowles defined this idea of “self-concept” in his first assumption about adult learners: “As a person matures his/her self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.” (Knowles, 1984)

Jenny Litster of the UCL Institute of Education (2016) explains,

The key difference between learning that happens in school and most learning that takes place after the end of formal education is that adults choose to engage in learning. And unlike children, who are required by law to go to school, adults are free to choose to engage and to persist in education…

Self-concept refers to one’s belief in oneself as competent and capable in a
particular domain…Adults need to be responsible for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction. This is therefore linked to Knowles’ first assumption that adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (see blog #2). Adults need to…have the freedom to learn in their own way and they also need guidance and support to learn in their own way…A focus on self-directed learning is a reminder that adults have their own motivations for engaging in education, and are capable of engaging in self-directed autonomous learning. (Litster, 2016)

Let’s review the pedagogy vs. andragogy chart that we explored earlier in this blog series. Note the row entitled “The Learner” differentiates child and adult learners, particularly with regard to the role of the teacher (who, intentionally, isn’t even mentioned in the Andragogy column). When it comes to adult learning, the “teacher” should thus become more of a “trail guide” who essentially hands the student a map, points out key features and landmarks, provides a means of contact for support, and wishes the student well on their journey.


Since “Many adults bristle at being told what to do and micro-managed every step of the way” (Bleich, 2018), learning experiences should be designed to allow for plenty of independent thought, minimal instruction, and limited instructor intervention (certainly be available if students need help, but ensure the responsibility for requesting assistance lies with the students).

navigational compass sitting on a map of southern asia

Compass on A Treasure Map, photo by hmomoy, 2010

Here are five easy strategies to become a better trail guide:

  1. Have learners pool a resource bank of skills they offer their peers – perhaps they are experts at editing or research – allow them to offer these skills in trade for someone who is an expert with a new technology tool.
  2. Provide learning menus for adults
  3. Design short stackable video tutorials that adults can watch when they are stuck
  4. Use consistent ‘trail markers’ in your online learning content so adults can navigate easily through the content
  5. Intentionally design goal setting, and reflection into the learning activities so adults feel agency over the direction they are taking

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

For adults, learning means self-directed, independent thought and work. The role of the adult educator is to provide support and guidance as needed, with minimal oversight, while allowing learners to explore and make and correct errors on their own. So what does this mean for you?

It depends on the material, but generally speaking, allowing the audience to read and digest the material(s) with little to no direction will set the stage for autonomy.


Bleich, C. (8 July 2018). How understanding the adult learning theory helps us create better eLearning. Retrieved from

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Litster, J. (2016). Breaking barriers: Research report. The principles of adult learning. Retrieved from

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